Citizen-initiated ordinances bring an end to pay-to-play campaign cash

The Hoboken political playing field gets leveled

By Ron Hine | FBW | December 12, 2013

The campaign fundraising in municipal elections for Hoboken, New Jersey has undergone a tectonic shift in the past eight years. Campaign finance reports for last November’s municipal election reveal spending by the three slates of candidates to be roughly equal, ranging from $126,674 for Mayor Zimmer’s winning team to $159,381 for the Councilman Tim Occhipinti’s slate. Mayor Dawn Zimmer swept back into office with 47% of the vote, while Occhipinti’s mayoral bid garnered just 18%. New Jersey Assemblyman Ruben Ramos received the remaining 35% of the vote in his bid to be mayor.

These results stand in marked contrast to the 2005 mayoral race won by David Roberts who collected a staggering $1.4 million dollars to defeat then Councilwoman Carol Marsh outspending her by a margin of approximately ten to one. Roberts won with 58% of the vote to Marsh’s 42%. In 2001, Roberts won election as mayor after receiving large contributions from professional firms that later won generous, no-bid service contracts with the City of Hoboken. The record spending in the 2005 mayoral campaign resulted in contributions from these same firms plus large donations from real estate developers who had approvals pending for their Hoboken projects.

The difference in campaign funding has resulted from a series of ordinances enacted in Hoboken that have ended the practice of pay-to-play, where firms make large political contributions with the expectation of securing municipal contracts or approvals for development projects. All of these ordinances were initiated by a local group called People for Open Government (POG) based on model ordinances drafted by the Citizens Campaign, a state-wide group in New Jersey headed by Harry Pozycki.

In 2004, Mayor Roberts and the Hoboken City Council resisted appeals from POG to pass the first pay-to-play model ordinance entitled Public Contracting Reform. In response, utilizing New Jersey’s Initiative & Referendum statute, POG placed the ordinance on the ballot in the November 2004 election. Hoboken voters passed the the ordinance by an overwhelming margin. Subsequently, POG successfully pressed the City to pass a developer pay-to-play ordinance under threat of another ballot initiative. For the past eight years, these two ordinances have effectively dried up campaign contributions from professional service firms seeking municipal contracts and real estate developers with projects in redevelopment areas.

In the first several years as mayor, David Roberts raised most of his campaign funds from from local developers and city contractors. In these initial years, the largest contributors with City contracts were Sarkisian Florio & Kenny ($35,700), Scarinci & Hollenbeck ($31,850), Schoor DePalma ($29,300), NW Financial ($26,900), Ernst & Young ($25,800) and Allied Risk Services ($21,600). These funds helped the mayor get elected and then maintain his slim five to four council majority in the 2003 council race.

Hoboken City Hall, December 2013.

Hoboken City Hall, December 2013.

From March 29 to April 27, 2005, six Hoboken developers, Michael Barry of Applied Companies, Dean Geibel of Metro Homes, Dil Hoda of Monroe Center Management, Michael Sciarra of URSA Development, a principal of Toll Brothers and Arthur Garfield of Tarragon Realty Investors, each contributed the $10,400 maximum to the Roberts Team. Another developer, Larry Bijou of Bijou Holdings contributed $10,000. Also in April 2005, three of these same developers, Arthur Garfield, Dean Geibel and Michael Sciarra, each contributed $7,200 to the Hoboken Democratic Party.

The expectation that the anti-pay-to-play ordinances would level the political playing field has been fulfilled. The influence of money in Hoboken politics has been diminished dramatically. Frank Raia ran for City Council on Councilman Tim Occhipinti’s slate this past November. He could have been the exception to the rule, having contributed $122,000 to their campaign. Yet, those funds had little influence in this past election since that slate trailed far behind most of the other candidates.

Related links

Political turmoil and pay-to-play ordinances level the political playing field
POG takes mayor and City to court for campaign finance violations
Major contributions solicited from developers and city contractors
Developers pay to play at Hoboken City Hall by writing big checks